Volatility and vote switching (Part I: 2017 Labour voters)

Paula Surridge
Sep 12 · 6 min read

With a General Election on the horizon (again) there is much interest in what the polls can tell us. Most of the polls ask a simple question ‘Which party would you vote for in a general election’ the problem with this approach (leaving aside samples, turnout weights and recall problems) is that at a distance from polling day there are many voters who may be undecided, it also doesn’t give us any indication of whether voters are absolutely set on a single party and will not be knocked from that or if they are ‘persuadable’ by another party. An alternative approach to this is to ask voters how likely it is that they would ever vote for each party.

The most recent wave of the British Election Study Internet Panel asks these questions for all the parties likely to compete in the next general election. The data were collected in March 2019 and so are prior to the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and Jo Swinson as leader of the Liberal Democrats. A little care is needed in the interpretation of the figures, nonetheless because the question asks ‘ever’ to vote for they are much more stable measures of preferences than the single choice vote intention question.

Due to the large two-party share of the vote in 2017 I focus only on Labour and Conservative voters and how they rate their likelihood of voting for other parties (for easier reading I’ve split this into two blogs, Part II on 2017 Conservatives is available here) As I wrote here the next election is more likely to about which of the two main parties holds on to its 2017 vote rather than either of them increasing their vote share.

Since the EU referendum many political scientists have suggested that how people voted in the referendum has become an important part of their political identity, perhaps even more important than their connections to parties. In this piece I use a measure of ‘Brexit identity’ which taps into this attachment to a ‘side’ in the referendum. More analysis of this identity and how it is measured can be found in this earlier blog

The ‘Brexit identity’ of 2017 Labour voters is shown below.

Just under 1 in 4 Labour 2017 voters have a fairly or very strong sense of identity with the ‘leave’ side in the referendum, 12% hold this very strongly. In contrast over 50% of 2017 Labour voters have a fairly or very strong remain identity, with over 35% being very strong remain identifiers. Geography of course plays a part in this and there may be a much higher proportion of strong leave identifiers in some Labour seats (sadly the data dont allow this kind of breakdown due to issues of sample size, but more detail on region variations can be found here).

Using these groups we can look at how likely it is that these voters will look elsewhere to satisfy their ‘Brexit’ identity if they feel Labour is not firmly enough on ‘their’ side of this issue. Endless Vox Pops from Northern (or at least not Southern) constituencies search for those Labour voters who are now leaning Conservative as a result of Brexit, often they find voters fed up with everyone.

These data show the very high levels of antipathy towards the Conservative party among 2017 Labour voters, regardless of how they feel about Brexit. Even amongst those with strong leave identity only 12% rate their likelihood of voting Conservative as 6/10 or higher.

What then of the Brexit Party? Less troubled by old antagonisms, could they do better among Labour leavers than the Conservatives? Again a cautionary note on the data, this was collected in March when the Brexit Party was only just entering the public consciousness as EU Parliament elections loomed. It is likely that these ‘likelihoods’ are less well established for voters than those for older parties.

Unsurprisingly, Labour voters are much more divided in their likelihood to vote for the Brexit Party according to their ‘Brexit identity’. Over 95% of strong remain identifiers give a score of 0/10 for voting for Brexit party while just over a third of strong leavers also rate their likelihood of voting for the Brexit party at 0/10. But more worrying for Labour is that almost 40% of the strong leave identifiers and around 20% of the fairly strong leave identifiers score their likelihood to vote for the Brexit Party at 6 or more. This suggests that 2017 Labour voters with leave identities are more likely to consider voting for theBrexit Party than the Conservatives.

As we saw initially, overall these leave identifiers are a relatively small proportion of 2017 Labour voters. The distribution of them across constituencies, and whether or not they eventually make the jump to the Brexit party may well be critical to the fortunes of both Labour and the Conservatives in an election where small margins may be key.

Losing leave identifiers is of course not the only (or perhaps even the main) threat to Labour at the next election. The LibDems have been making gains among remain voters according to recent polling, and the March 2019 EU Parliament Elections.

Among those who voted Labour in 2017 and have a strong remain identity 45% rate their likelihood of voting Liberal Democrat at 6/10 or higher. This shouldn’t be entirely surprising, many of these voters did in fact vote LibDem in 2005 or 2010. This will be of major concern to Labour though, as it shows that almost half of this group of voters may be willing to switch to the LibDems, this group itself being the largest among 2017 Labour support.

But it may be that a strong campaign (or a clear Brexit message?) means that these voters stick with Labour.

The signs this might happen are mixed. Among the strong remain identifiers over 40% give a 10/10 likelihood of voting Labour, it is possible with strong remain messaging and a good campaign Labour can hold onto more of their 2017 base than recent polls have suggested. However, among very strong leave identifiers (who had voted Labour in 2017) 25% rate their likelihood of ever voting again Labour at 0/10.

This may be an important element of the electoral landscape at the next general election; not just who those ‘Labour leavers’ vote for but if they vote at all. Looking across these four parties (and limiting our analysis to England only to avoid the additional complications of the nationalists in Scotland and Wales) more than 1 in 5 of Labour 2017 voters with a leave identity did not score any of the parties at 6 or higher. In otherwords they rated themselves as unlikely to vote for Labour, the Brexit Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservatives.

What might this all mean for a general election (widely expected to be soon), it goes some way to explaining why Labour find it so hard to lock in their Brexit position, they are fighting to hold on to their 2017 vote from two sides. The bigger electoral danger may be losing a significant proportion of the much larger group of ‘strong remain’ voters but in some areas losing a proportion of those with leave identities to the Brexit Party or to non-voting could be enough for the Conservatives to squeeze past.

Paula Surridge

Written by

Researching values, identity and social class and their impact on political behaviour.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade